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A Police Chief’s Choice: The Statue or The People

“Serve the people first and our honorable work will always have meaning.” - Guest Blogger Police Chief (Retired) Chris Blue


One of the toughest times in my career came on the heels of one of the easiest decisions I ever made.


As in many communities in the South, a confederate monument had stood at the doorstep of our local University for close to 100 years when, on the first day of the fall semester, August 20, 2018, anti-monument demonstrators successfully pulled the monument down.


I’ve heard it said that Integrity is doing the right thing when nobody's watching. But my preferred definition says that Integrity is the practice of being honest and showing a consistent and uncompromising adherence to strong moral and ethical principles and values. I will add that Integrity is best revealed (or discovered) in the face of personal challenge. August 20, 2018 was a challenge for me both personally and professionally.


In the weeks leading up to that day, we had seen flyers suggesting that something was going to happen that night. While it certainly wasn't clear that an attempt to take the monument down would occur, the social media traffic and the flyers that were popping up around town suggested that we could expect a large event. So, we did a large-scale callback, incident plan, and set up for what we imagined would be a long night.


Around 7PM, many hundreds of people marched down our main street then onto the University campus, encircling the monument, and began working to loosen the monument so it could be pulled down a short time later. The group was extremely well-prepared and organized and the police officers were severely outnumbered.


On the night “Silent Sam” fell, I was sitting in the command post next to our University’s police chief. We saw that, as the crowd grew and as their intent became increasingly clear, that keeping them from defacing or otherwise damaging the monument meant employing tactics that would likely injure the demonstrators (and possibly our officers) who were gathered around the base of the statue.


We immediately agreed that protecting people must be our focus. Therefore, when it became clear that the size of the crowd was such that we could no longer keep them back, we pulled our officers away from the monument. “Silent Sam” fell minutes later.


Not surprisingly, our decision was met with an intense response from both sides of the issue. In the weeks and months after “Silent Sam” fell, many reports were commissioned and presented to numerous stakeholders either condemning or praising our tactical decision to pull back.


The following months of subsequent demonstrations took an immense toll on our teams as the intensity of the demonstrations heated up. We encountered protestors and counter-protestors who repeatedly clashed in the middle of our downtown until it was decided that the monument would not return.


Despite the intensity of those months, I stand by our decision. No persons there that night, no officers, no anti-monument nor pro-monument participants received so much as a scratch.

So how is this story relevant to the concept of Integrity? As noted above, my preferred definition says that Integrity is the practice of being honest and showing a consistent and uncompromising adherence to strong moral and ethical principles and values.


To me, policing is fundamentally about people. Although we swear an oath to protect objects and property, we do not swear an oath of service to them. We do, however, swear an oath to our communities and the people in them.

For folks entering our profession or for those who have served for years, an occasional reminder can be useful to all of us. Without the people we serve, our proud and noble profession need not exist. Serve the people first and our honorable work will always have meaning.


What do you do when you know your decisions will upset somebody no matter which choice you choose? You have to know what you stand for and exercise the Courage to maintain your Integrity.


In a polarizing set of circumstances, Chief Chris Blue knew what he needed to do. He prioritized the people over the statue. Was everyone happy with that decision? No. But when we exercise Integrity, we will rarely make everyone happy. That may be why it is so rare these days. Thank you Chief Blue for sharing how to exercise Integrity when it is hard. I (Dave) admire the men and women in law enforcement who serve our communities with Integrity like Chris.


Chief Chris Blue is currently the interim City Manager in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Prior to that, he spent over 26 years as a member of the Chapel Hill Police Department. His final 12 years he was the Chief of Police. For more information: https://www.linkedin.com/in/chris-blue-ba4bb48/

 

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